Thanks to the efforts of a coalition of Native American tribes and an assist from the Sierra Club, Mt. Taylor in north-central New Mexico has won a one-year designation as a Traditional Cultural Property from the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Office, protecting the peak from exploratory uranium mining until applications for mining permits are fully evaluated by tribal groups. The 11,300-foot mountain, pictured above, is considered a sacred cultural site to the Navajo, Hopi, Laguna, Acoma, and Zuni tribes.
Prior to the designation, tribes did not receive notice of proposed state or federal action in the affected area. The new designation puts the state and federal agencies on notice to gather tribal input when applications for mining permits on sacred lands are evaluated.
"The uranium mining permitting process is never in the best interest of the pueblos and tribes, especially within the proposed traditional cultural properties area," says Zuni Pueblo Councilman Arden Kucate. "All we are asking is to have a fair process to determine the traditional cultural properties on Mt. Taylor."
Tribal members still live with radiation threats from more than 1,000 mine sites abandoned after the cold war. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that between 1944 and 1986, nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore were dug and blasted from Navajo soil, nearly all of it for America's atomic arsenal. Navajos inhaled radioactive dust, drank contaminated water, and built homes using rock from the mines and mills. But after decades of mining and accumulating evidence of cancer spikes and other diseases, mining companies reneged on their cleanup responsibilities after the cold war arms race ended.
The nuclear power industry is now seeking to resume operations, and in response the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division streamlined the permit process, allowing mining activities to proceed without notifying the affected tribes when the site is less than five acres, and ignoring Governor Bill Richardson's executive order requiring statewide tribal consultation to protect sacred places. New mining plans on Mt. Taylor are opposed by tribes because the state has failed to perform environmental analysis on underground drinking water supplies, groundwater withdrawls, and impacts from exploratory wells.
"A lot of the tribes and communities from the affected areas really wanted to slow things down so we can have some breathing room to address these issues," says Robert Tohe, below, a Navajo and an Environmental Justice organizer for the Sierra Club. "There are so many different parts to the nuclear fuel cycle that affect sacred areas like Mt. Taylor."
The emergency stay granted by the New Mexico State Cultural Properties Review Committee will give the state time to gather input from affected tribal groups and allow the tribes and the state Historic Preservation Division to carefully evaluate applications for mining permits. "The committee action means pueblos and tribes can't be ignored when there are imminent threats to a sacred mountain," says Tohe.
Tribes took it on themselves to lobby for the designation of Mt. Taylor as a Traditional Cultural Property, and the Sierra Club worked to support the their application, helping organize meetings where different tribes could get together, and testifying before the Historic Preservation board. Rio Grande Chapter organizer Dan Lorimer, below, testified on behalf of the tribes at the Indian Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
"The Sierra Club supports every layer of protection that could be supplied to the open spaces on Mt. Taylor," Lorimer says. "I spoke about the uses of these lands and their importance to us as an outdoor group. We're very sensitive to the reemergence of the uranium industry in New Mexico—it's a chapter priority."
Pueblos and tribes now have one year to complete a formal application for registration with the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. "The emergency stay slows the whole process down," says Tohe. "It's very significant for the tribes in learning how to work together to protect special places on public lands."
Learn more about the Club's tribal partnerships work.
Photos used with permission.